25 March 2013

Totem and Talisman, Part Two

In my previous post, I meditated on how Arsene Wenger, the totem, symbolizes Arsenal's recent past. Today, we take a more forward-view, pondering the talisman that embodies Arsenal's future. Jack Wilshere was born in the same year I finished high school, three months after my formal soccer career came to a cruel end, 5-1 at the hands of a wealthier team (they not only had their own pitch, but several, while we toiled away at our local public park). At any rate, that year, 1992, a 42-year old Arsene Wenger coached Monaco to a 2nd place finish behind Olympique Marseille and lost the European Cup Final to Werder Bremen. January 1992 also saw President George Bush I vomit at a banquet in Japan, the first stage of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and Princess Sarah Ferguson did all sorts of crazy things.

Sixteen years and and eight months later, at the age of 16 years, 256 days, Wilshere became the youngest-ever player to represent Arsenal. Five years after that, Jack Wilshere features prominently in Arsenal's 2012-13 campaign and figures to become its official leader sooner rather than later.  More senior-players defer to him and seek him out to give him the ball, knowing that he, more than them, hungers for the ball not because he enjoys dribbling but because he believes in driving forward and putting a defense on its heels. He has achieved so much, so fast, that Barcelona's Dani Alves, like a hairier Gollum, craves Wilshere's signing. Wilshere did sign a new contract in December 2012, so his future is, for now, secure. I know fell-well that he would not be the first player to avow his loyalty to a team only to leave later when the filthy lucre comes calling, and it would be naive to take anything anyone says at face value, but he seems to mean it, at least at a level deeper than that of other players who have made similar promises. For now, we can enjoy a player who, at the tender age of 21, has seized a team and made it his own.

His year-long injury seemed to only raise expectations to a fever-pitch. Somehow, his sheer grit, skill, and passion have driven beyond those expectations, leading to comparisons (Gerrard? Gascoigne? Fabregas?) that are premature, if not outlandish. However, to see him play is to lose one's breath. He has all of the talents that you'd hope for in a modern footballer--and a footballer who fits Arsene's style. Is he "good enough" to play for Barcelona? Sure. No less an authority than Cesc Fabregas has said, after an England-Spain friendly last year, that England is nothing without Jack. The man is a joy to watch because he plays with such joy, such passion. Even when a game seems out of reach, he impels himself forward, compelling others around him to keep up or get out of the way. It's this quality, perhaps more than others, that he brings. As clinical a finisher as Van Persie is, and as skilled a passer and dribbler as Fabregas is, I don't think I've seen a player just refuse to lose--even when victory is as far out of reach as it was in the waning seconds of injury-time down 3-1 to Bayern.

The man will force you to try harder--tell me you've never felt the urge to get up off the couch and do some push-ups to live up to his expectations. He believes in himself, sure, but he believes in this team and its manager as well. As Wenger's time draws near, whether because the baying of the hounds becomes too loud for him to bear, his contract expires, or he chooses to leave on his own terms, the future of Arsenal seems poised to fall to Wilshere. Just as importantly, he seems to understand that possibility even as he remembers to defer to other players whose official roles outstrip his.  In the meantime, he will learn to temper his style of play to avoid the fouls and tackles that are all too often a defender's last resort, and he will learn to sublimate his ire before it draws a red-card. In the process, the breathtaking runs and sublime passes, his no-apologies tackles and wicked shots, will come to define him and his team even more so than they already do.As much as we have come to identify Arsene Wenger with Arsenal, it is my hope and most certainly that of all Gooners that we'll be saying the same of Jack ten years (and more) from now.